OAKLAND, Calif. — For LeBron James, these NBA Finals beginning Thursday night at Oracle Arena should be the pinnacle of a career that ranks with those of Bill Russell and Michael Jordan as the best in league history. But on the eve of the historic Cavaliers-Warriors trilogy, reality reached out from the shadows to remind him that, for some people, he never can do enough to earn everyone’s respect, not simply as a player but as a human being.
Early Wednesday morning, James learned someone had painted a racial slur on the gate of a mansion he owns in West Los Angeles. After all the buildup to what promises to be one of the greatest NBA Finals matchups ever, the incident being invested by Los Angeles police as a hate crime clearly sapped James of the excitement he normally would feel on such a special occasion.
It’s far from the first time James has experienced racially tinged backlash. He’s been a cultural icon since his high school days in Akron before going straight to the NBA, and his departure from Cleveland to “take my talents to South Beach” when he moved to Miami sparked resentment in his home state.
Asked on Wednesday if the Finals represent an opportunity to “prove people wrong or silence folks,” James showed how much he has matured at the age of 32 in his 14th NBA season.
“I’m not in that department anymore,” James said. “I left that in the 20s. I’m not in the ‘prove people wrong, silence critics’ department no more. I got that promotion when I got to the 30s.
“I mean, I know what I’ve done, and I know the way I’m built. My only motivation is to be able to compete for a championship every single year. I’m sitting here today blessed once again because I put in the work and our teammates have put in the work. So, yeah, that doesn’t matter to me.”
Perhaps even more remarkably, James suggested his shoulders are big enough to carry whatever burden society throws at him. If that means standing up and speaking out the way Russell once did but that Jordan generally avoided, bring it on.
“If this incident that happened to me and my family today can keep the conversation going and can shed light on us trying to figure out a way to keep progressing and not regressing,” James said, “then, I’m not against it happening to us again. I mean, as long as my family is safe.”
It’s about leadership, and James is willing to step up off the court and set the example the same way he has done on the court. Cavs teammate Kevin Love described Wednesday what that entails.
“I just think it’s a commitment to being great,” Love said. “We see that every day. He’s special in so many ways. His approach and his routine and just his relentlessness in chasing that greatness is special to watch. He’s our leader, and we follow him at all costs.”
Until the ugly incident that occurred at James’ L.A. home, these Finals figured to be about James’ legacy at a time when it has been popular to debate whether he or Jordan is the greatest. James said he normally avoids such talk, but he showed a keen awareness of where he stands.
“I’m the first person to go to the Finals seven straight times since, I think, Bill Russell . . . and I was the first guy to take two different franchises to the Finals four times. At the end of the day, once I hang it up, people can look at what I was able to accomplish, win, lose or draw, and say, ‘He made a difference.’ So, that’s what I’m here for.”
No matter how these Finals turn out, James can be proud not only of the legacy he’s left to the game and of the example he has set for his admirers but also for how he has risen above those who would tear him down.